La machine à explorer le tempo

Robert Marcel Lepage / La Nef

If the music makes you smile, it will have accomplished its aim… Coda Magazine, Canada

Pari réussi, haut les mains pour nos délicieux délinquants québécois. ImproJazz, France

Recorded live at the Festival Montréal/Nouvelles Musiques 2002, La Machine à explorer le tempo, Robert Marcel Lepage’s latest release, is a work written for the early music ensemble La Nef. Lepage and his 10 musicians are lively, derisive and delinquent: they manage to squeeze viola da gamba, banjo, sackbut and slide guitar into a ripping sound orgy that moves from tango to country and a dilapidated form of waltz!

La Machine à explorer le tempo (The Tempo Machine) will allow our courageous chrononauts to visit three music-time Paradoxes: passing Time, running Time and slipping Time. Each dive will take approximately twenty minutes. Our inspiration tanks allow up to 33 1/3 minutes of uninterrupted diving, but in order to preserve the security of our adventurers and our audience, we will keep to the thirds of an hour as measured by the marking standard at the Time Institute in Paris. The instrumental configuration of our ensemble forms the body of our Machine. It can be driven by many means, such as reading, improvisation, and even auto-pilot. We have two, three, and four-stroke engines fueled by rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and noise patterns.

First Paradox: Time passes… and the clocks bark. We will leave present Time in destination of the first Paradox at 9:03 PM on March 8th, 2003. Our schedule points out that we will be running on fin-de-siècle musical motifs such as: Confitures de sable, Le Tamponneur de triolet, La Nef en bateau, etc.

Second Paradox: Time flies… like a butterfly. We will begin a second dive toward flying Time at 9:25 PM, unless a delay is necessary, by seguing into North-American ballads like: Le Bivouac, Le Pied-Tendre, La Ballade des patates sucrées and On tue bien les chevaux… que faire des banjos?

Third Paradox: Time slips by… we must seal it. If Time allows us, a third dive will begin at around 9:45 PM and take us toward Hygiène des rebuts, Le Chat dans le tordeur and also Oups! J’ai échappé ma boîte d’accords majeurs. We’ll do everything in our power to catch up on lost Time, knowing very well that Time needs time from time to time. Nevertheless, this is the only show with an expiry date that promises a future discovery.

CD (AM 116)

  • Label: Ambiances Magnétiques
  • AM 116
  • 2003
  • UCC 771028111626
  • Total duration: 61:49
  • Sympathique case
  • 126 mm × 126 mm × 5 mm
  • 45 g

On the web

Some recommended items
In the press


Noël Tachet, ImproJazz, May 1, 2005


Marc Chénard, Coda Magazine, no. 307, January 1, 2005

In this hour-long suite of 18 items penned by Robert Marcel Lepage, the listener is taken on a whimsical trip into the Machine for exploring tempo (a pun which plays on the French equivalent to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, i.e. La Machine a explorer le temps”). In this instrumental work divided in three acts, the composer actually conducted an eclectic tentet, the core of whom are a baroque ensemble in Montréal called la Nef. Even more unusual is that this ensemble actually commissioned this suite for performance at a contemporary music festival held in March of 2003. And to make things even more curious, when have you have heard a lineup that includes viola de gamba, ritual flutes, sackbut, slide guitare, sampler and tabla? Lepage regularly composes for film, and this is a music of images, of stylistic references galore but of no single or underlying vision. This is light-hearted stuff, which the composer further underscores in his whimsical presentations between the acts. Despite brave attempts to translate parts of his narrations in the liner notes, much of the humor is lost and the spoken tracks will appear pointless to non-speakers of French. In this highly structured music, there is very little soloing, but trombonist extraordinaire Alain Trudel makes the most of his spots. If the music makes you smile, it will have accomplished its aim, so it’s best not to expect any heady stuff. (PS. I attended this performance, and smiled, too.)

If the music makes you smile, it will have accomplished its aim…


Luc Bouquet, ImproJazz, no. 111, January 1, 2005

Robert Marcel Lepage est un touche-à-tout de génie. Clarinettiste, dessinateur, compositeur, nageur émérite, il souscrit aux paris les plus extravagants. Par exemple, composer et diriger trois pièces pour la Nef, formation de musique ancienne. Ici, Lepage conçoit une machine à explorer le tempo; paradoxes musicaux temporels en trois parties: le temps passe… le temps file… le temps fuit… Un métronome pendule ouvre le bal d’une musique décapante. Des blocs: valse, musique répétitive, jazz, country, musique hawaïenne, rock, muzak. Des épices: malice, forêt luxuriante, connivence, non-sens absolu, détournements… Et surtout un humour à fleur de peau (sensibilité, idem!), des privates jokes corsaires (l’élimination des temps morts semble être l’obsession du compositeur), des évidences et de beaux partages. Pari réussi, haut les mains pour nos délicieux délinquants québécois.

Pari réussi, haut les mains pour nos délicieux délinquants québécois.


Jason Kirk, Splendid E-Zine, June 24, 2004

Often detached, dusty and irrevocably divorced from the context in which they were hatched, live albums tend to be museum-quality the moment they leave the mastering suite. Occasionally, though, a concert recording escapes the hobbling likelihood of staid sexlessness and captures as much animated verve as any studio project. Take Robert Lepage’s collaboration with Montréal’s La Nef. This three-part extravaganza, recorded at Quebec’s premier new music festival in March of 2003, begins with an eclectic cache of instrumental textures and ends with a portable version of Lepage’s most recent opus, which loses almost nothing in translation.

La Machine…’s thematic premise is simple. The composition begins with three idiomatic understandings of time (time passes, time flies, time slips by — called “Paradoxes” here) and uses each to guide a long musical movement from the outlands of avant-inscrutability home to the motherland of meaning. The result is stunning. Aided by La Nef, an ensemble of ten (including common chamber instruments and percussion, as well as guitar, banjo, tenor sax, viola da gamba, sackbut and live sampling) spools out the instrumentally dense compositions. The sheer conglomeration of the ensuing sounds would be enough to snare the open minds of many a curious listener, but the resonant respect for the audience inherent in Lepage’s complicated composition truly wins the day.

After an introductory address spoken in French over a pastiche of cuckoos, whistles and other frenetic clock noise, Confitures de sable eases in the proceedings with an armature of swaying, repetitious bass, splashing auxiliary percussion and gentle string swells. Loosely played flute and brass wash across the foundation with gentle, exploratory touch of a lover in patient heat. Then, like a freak parade in a conservatory, Le Tamponneur de triolet crashes in with a stomping insistence that, for all its initial bravado, ends up degenerating into a trombone and electronic effects duet that pulls off a wholly charismatic simultaneity of cranky savvy, flirtatious cloying and technical wizardry.

A seriously laid-back island vibe sets in with La Nef en bateau, at which point the remarkably organic fluctuation of disparate moods that informs the work is firmly established. Without ever interrupting the piece’s rum-cocktail fluidity, lazily plucked slide guitar, wispy flute, wandering violin and smarmy shaker dominate. Chronotopie du Cancer could be a Danny Elfman score, if only he weren’t stuck in the same always-recognizable chordal modes we’ve heard in countless Tim Burton films. The palatable insanity of the mood treads the line between intention and caprice without a missed step, and in closing the first movement, the track is a flat blast — and perfect punctuation.

In the second movement, Ennio Morricone rises from the grave, albeit through the funhouse mirror that refracts the entirety of La Machine…. Banjo, guitar, major chords and fickle entropy rise to the fore in the six tracks of this middle “Paradoxe,” whose highlight is Le Coup d’archet est toujours plus vert dans la cour du voisin, a gritty and heavily effected string solo that puts any all-star fiddling on live Yanni discs straight to shame. The movement wraps with a delicate waltz that may be the disc’s most derivative two-and-a-half minutes, but remain no less lovely for their lesser challenge.

“Time” indeed “slips by” in the “Troisième paradoxe.” Short, elegant and appropriately ethereal, the movement’s five tracks (excepting a break to introduce the musicians) work like a lubricated rub-down in the wee hours after a long, happily challenging day. The closer (Oups! J’ai échappé ma boîte d’accords majeurs!) slides through varying tempos while lightly hammering a two-beat alternation that brings this mad masterwork to an ideal denouement, as if Montréal weren’t already the front-runner for the Most Steamy North American Hotbed of the New Millennium Musical Vanguard Award. Phew! Now go towel off.

The result is stunning.


Dolf Mulder, Vital, no. 421, May 11, 2004

La machine à explorer le tempo is an epic and narrative work. Cinema turned into music. Not so strange since Lepage wrote soundtracks for over hundred films and documentaries. The work is performed by the La Nef Ensemble. A suite in three parts, each part subdivived in 6 minor parts. This ensemble is specialised in playing early and traditional music, as well as new music. Founded in 1991 developped into a very dynamic and eclectic ensemble. Here they play a new work on new and traditional instruments: Stéphane Allard (violin, baritone violin), Ganesh Anadan (percussion), Nicolas Boucher (sampling and live sound treatment), Nicolas Caloia (double bass), Yanik Cloutier (guitar, banjo), Claire Gignac (flutes, ritual flutes, tenor saxophone), Patrick Graham (percussion), Betsy MacMillan (viola da gamba), Alain Trudel (trombone, sackbut) and Samuel Vero (trumpet, piccolo trumpet). Together they give away a very joyful and fresh rendition of La machine… , recorded during concert on march 8th, 2003. All three parts are introduced by Lepage and evoke different aspects of time: the time that passes, the time that hurries by and distorted time. Lepage is inspired by the novel of H.G.Wells Time Machine. The three parts differ in many respects. We hear different types of music and musical styles. Nice melodies and themes where you immediately ask yourself where did I hear that before, but that are impossible to identify. As a consequence the music often sounds ‘familiar’ and ‘safe’. The instrumentation ranges from traditional instruments like viola da gamba to live sampling. Beautiful banjo playing by Yanik Cloutier and extravagant trombone playing by Alain Trudel, etc. Considering this great diversity we should compliment Louis Babin for the arrangements, because the work changes colours very naturally. A nice work by workaholic Robert Lepage.


Phil Zampino, The Squid’s Ear, January 26, 2004

The body of work from Robert Lepage is an ever expanding universe of ideas and concepts, including his core clarinet work, experiments with other actuelle artists such as Martin Tétreault and René Lussier, and his many compositional and soundtrack pieces. His recent 20h17 rue Darling is a dark and moody soundtrack composition with a persistent narrative. La machine à explorer le tempo shows another side to Lepage’s compositions, more melodic and playful, demonstrating his talent in a wide variety of styles.

This work was commissioned by the La Nef, a group founded in 1991 by Sylvain Bergeron, Claire Gignac and Viviane LeBlanc to focus on early music placed in modern settings. They challenged Lepage to create a piece for 10 musicians with modern and traditional instrumentation. The result is a piece for horns, an early trombone called the sackbut, guitar and banjo, a form of bazouki known as the saz, bass, flutes, percussion, violins, sampling and live sound treatment, for which Louis Babin provided deft arrangements. This live recording is taken from the second performance of the work, and includes brief dialog from Lepage (in French) discussing the piece. The 18 movements are parts of three “Paradoxes” which Lepage describes tongue-in-cheek as allowing the “courageous chrononauts to visit three music time Paradoxes: passing Time, running Time, and slipping Time.” Each paradox lasts about 20 minutes, and explores composition, musical games, improvisations, sampling and live processing.

The resulting music is an absorbing combination of genres and styles, reflecting both Lepage’s interest in mood and his breadth as a composer. American ballads, exotica, cinematic sweeps, banjo ramblings, moody narratives, simple melodic settings and orchestral grandeur slip and slide into each other with an excellent sense of direction. Genre-jumpers will find this an excellent work to deconstruct, while the merely curious will find in it an ever-shifting yet always engaging work. Ultimately it is an excellent reflection on musical style with a broad historical vision. As well it should: Lepage named the piece in reference to H G Well’s novel, The Time Machine, with the further aim of creating a cinematic universe to freely mix music of all periods.

Ultimately it is an excellent reflection on musical style with a broad historical vision.


Christophe Rodriguez, Le Journal de Montréal, November 8, 2003

Quand le compositeur Robert. M. Lepage (Urgences, Les Enfants du Refus global, 20h17, rue Darling) fait équipe avec l’ensemble musical La Nef, le résultat ne peut être que déroutant et explosif. Entre le banjo, les percussions, la flûte traversière et le violon, chacun y trouve son compte. Réjouissant.



François Couture, AllMusic, November 1, 2003

Robert Marcel Lepage has not released a quirky, playful album like this since Les clarinettes ont-elles un escalier de secours? back in 1998. In fact, La machine à explorer le tempo (a play on words on H.G. Wells’ novel, roughly translating to “The Tempo Machine”) arches back to the zany side of the Ambiances Magnétiques collective and deserves a place alongside Les Granules’ albums, Jean Derome’s Je me souviens, and Martin Tétreault’s Des pas et des mois. On this album Lepage leaves his clarinet untouched. Instead he conducts La Nef, an early period music ensemble with ties to the contemporary and new music scene. The 18 tracks are grouped into three suites, each illustrating a different fanciful time paradox. The instrumentation includes strings, flutes, trumpet, trombone, sackbut, banjo (Yanik Cloutier, impressive), live sampling, and percussion (Ganesh Anandan and Patrick Graham, who also play together under the name Ga Pa). Lepage leads them through a number of styles, ranging from Ballroom dance to Western ballad, Baroque, Polka and Rockabilly. His knack for graceful melodies — so often featured in his film soundtracks — pops in here and there (La villa des loups for example), but for the most part the music focuses on odd stylistic combinations, festive rhythms, and occasionally cartoonish playing. The album was recorded live and includes spoken presentations by Lepage. After a couple of listens they get in the way (coming from a reviewer who understands French, it will be worse for listeners who don’t), but you can always program them out of the track list. And in any case, La machine à explorer le tempo remains an unusually entertaining album.

… an unusually entertaining album.

Disque de la semaine

Réjean Beaucage, Voir, October 30, 2003

Enregistré le 8 mars 2003 dans le cadre du festival Montréal/Nouvelles Musiques, alors que La Nef lançait son secteur “musiques nouvelles” afin, essentiellement, de susciter une rencontre entre les compositeurs d’aujourd’hui et la musique ancienne. Bien sûr, l’instrument ne fait que ce qu’on lui commande de faire et l’on peut aussi bien jouer du blues sur une viole de gambe, aussi les amateurs de musique ancienne ne trouveront pas leur compte ici. Parce que Robert Marcel fait du Lepage, une indéfinissable musique “contractuelle”, comme il le dit si bien, et avec un très bel ensemble de 10 musiciens plus jazzmen que ménestrels. Viole, violon et contrebasse; trompette, trombone et flûte; échantillonneur, banjo et percussions: un effectif éclectique pour une musique à l’avenant. Léger. 3/5

… un effectif éclectique pour une musique à l’avenant.